Full Portrait Retouching in Lightroom


by Sarah Wilkerson

As much as we all want to feel beautiful in photographs, for most photographers, the goal is to make a subject look as she would on her very best day — not unrecognizable. It’s tempting to go heavy in Photoshop, with its powerful tools for creating flawless skin and a little nip/tuck here and there. Plus, let’s be honest, it’s fun! I adore glamour/fashion retouching, and if you’re shooting models or clients who expect full-on photographic transformations, by all means – go to town! For those who want to produce something a little more natural, though, you may not need Photoshop at all. Let’s take a look at the way Lightroom can be utilized to produce a perfectly polished portrait.

We’re working with a real person here – yep, that’s me – and this is the image as it appears directly upon import into Lightroom (let’s overlook the careless composition; it’s a quick selfie!):

full portrait retouching in Lightroom

Let’s crop in tight to the face:

using Lightroom to retouch a portrait

The first thing I want to do is correct my color and exposure. Immediately I can see that this is too yellow. I set my white balance manually when I’m shooting, and here I had it set to my standard mid-day natural light setting: 5450K.  Unfortunately, the walls are a warm tan color, and it’s throwing off a much warmer color cast than I want. Since I shot in RAW and my white balance isn’t significantly off, this is an easy fix for me that will have very little bearing on my exposure. I pull my slider down until it looks good to my eye (sidenote: my monitor is regularly calibrated with an i1D2, and I’ve trained my eye to have a good handle on proper color for skin), and to me, it looks right at around 4800K:

Rollover the image to see the adjustment
adjusting white balance in Lightroom

Overall exposure looks pretty good, but I’m going to brighten it up just a touch and add a bit of contrast. I’m reducing exposure by -0.1 to protect my highlights while increasing my brightness by +11 and contrast by +9. I also want to significantly deepen by shadows, particularly because doing so here is really going to help the eyes pop (the eyelashes and liner represent some of the darkest areas of the image), so I’ll pull my shadows (in the tone curve panel) down to -51:

Rollover the image to see the adjustment

fixing exposure in Adobe Lightroom

The last global adjustment I want to make is to little tweak my red tones in the HSL Panel. In particular, I want to cool off, lighten, and slightly desaturate the reds, which will really only affect the lips in my image (not loving my lipstick choice). I’m adjusting red’s Hue to -25, Saturation to -17, and Luminance to +10. I’m also going to increase the yellow saturation by +10 to bring a bit more depth into the hair. These adjustments are subtle; watch closely:

Rollover the image to see the adjustment

adjusting reds in the HSL panel in Lightroom

Global adjustments are now complete, so I’m moving on to some selective adjustments. My key tools here are the spot removal tool and selective adjustment brush. Let’s start with spot removal. There’s a blemish under the lips (camera right side) and two little scars (top of the nose bridge and above the lip). I also want to tone down the gloss shine on my upper lip. Those four spots will be corrected using the spot removal tool in heal mode, opacity 100%.  I also want to soften the jowly crease near my cheek; again, heal mode, but with opacity at 72% (I want to soften it – not eliminate it, which would look artificial):

using the spot removal tool and selective adjustment brush in Lightroom

Rollover the image to see the adjustment
using the spot removal tool and selective adjustment brush in Lightroom by Sarah Wilkerson

Now I’ll smooth out the skin a bit and just lightly brighten it – I’m hitting the forehead, cheeks, around the eyes, and lightly on the nose and chin – definitely NOT hitting eyes themselves, eyebrows, lips, or hair. I’m using equal amounts of brightness + contrast to ensure that I don’t wash out my details, and I’m working with negative clarity and slightly increased sharpness for the actual skin smoothing. Brush settings are Brightness +5, Contrast +5, Clarity -47, Sharpness +2:

Rollover the image to see the adjustment

how to smooth skin in Lightroom

Remember how I deepened the shadows to make the eyes pop? I’m going to take it even further. Using the selective adjustment brush set to +36 contrast, I’m going to paint each eye to whiten the white and deepen the lashes, iris, and pupil (again, a subtle adjustment):

Rollover the image to see the adjustment

how to smooth skin in Lightroom by Sarah Wilkerson

Now I want to do just a bit of contouring. My goals here are to slim the nose a bit and give the cheekbones some strength. With my brush set to +.35 exposure, I paint a soft highlight down the bridge of the nose, then – using a new brush set to +.20 – add a slight highlight along the upper edge of the cheekbone. With a third brush set to -.20 exposure, I shade the side of the nose (and ever so slightly under the tip), then add a subtle shadow beneath the cheekbone (brush at -.11 exposure):

Rollover the image to see the adjustment

highlighting and contouring the face in Lightroom

I’m going to even out the lip color a little bit and then soften the lips overall (hello, dry Colorado weather!). To even, I paint along the edges with a brush set to -26 contrast and -36 clarity; then, to soften, I’ll take a brush set at -38 sharpness across the fullest part of the lip. To top it off, I’m going to give a little more plumpness to the lips by adding a natural highlight (brightness +10) to the center of the bottom lip:

Rollover the image to see the adjustment

adjusting lips in Lightroom

Oh those roots! Let’s lighten them a bit. I’ve set my brush to brightness +60 and flow to 30 so that I can naturally build up the brightness:

Rollover the image to see the adjustment

fixing hair color in Lightroom

It’s looking a little bit brassy on top, so I’m taking my brush (flow still at 30 so that I can build up) with saturation set to -25 to tone that down a bit:

Rollover the image to see the adjustment

fixing hair color in Lightroom by Sarah Wilkerson

We certainly could take it further, even in Lightroom. I could remove the mole above my lip, use spot removal to give myself freckle-free skin, and even remove the nasty looking scar (impressive, right?) on my arm … but those are attributes that I actually want to keep; I may not love them, but I identify with them … and that can be a very personal thing! For me, this is a very natural edit that stays true to who I am. Could you see the changes we made step-by-step? They are subtle, but when all is said and done, they do make a nice difference. All I have left to do is a bit of presharpening — I’ve used Amount 26 / Radius 1.1, Detail 50, Masking 22:

Rollover the image to see the adjustment

sharpening in Lightroom

Here’s the before and after:

portrait retouching in Adobe Lightroom before portrait retouching in Adobe Lightroom after

Rollover to see the Before and After Transition
portrait retouching in Adobe Lightroom before and after

Questions about this tutorial? I’m happy to help – chat with me in the comments! And if you try it out on a portrait of your own, I’d love to see the before and after in the comments as well!

Sarah WilkersonSarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | CMU Instructor
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Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.

Read all photography tutorials by Sarah Wilkerson.


  • Sonja says:

    Love the way the information was presented in roll over form, thank you.

  • Jenso says:

    Thank you SO much for posting this. I’ve been trying to figure out how to remove brassy highlights in hair for my work portraits for a long time. You’re a genius!

  • Natalie M says:

    I love the edit job and the step by step along with the pictures to show the process. I always try to edit lightly and this will be so helpful to me in the future. Thank you for a wonderful post.

  • Margie says:

    I just love your way to edit. I’m pretty new in editing but in the little work I have done, NATURAL EDITING is my main focus. Even when I don’t understand all the editing steps is a good resource. Thanks! 😉

  • tg says:

    This was such a wonderful tutorial! Thank you for breaking it all down in simple steps…and the roll over before and afters for each step were very helpful!

  • Love this! I use Lightroom for all my edits and never felt a need for photoshop.

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